To the average person, the name Henrietta Lacks means little to nothing. Some students or adults with a good memory or an interest in science may recall that Henrietta Lacks had important cells with lasting effects on modern medicine. However, she is much more than just an important scientific contribution. Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1st, 1920. After the death of her mother, she moved in with her cousin, David, and her grandfather. Henrietta worked on a tobacco farm until she gave birth to her first child at the age of fourteen. She went on to marry David and give birth to four more of his children. The family eventually moved to Maryland where Henrietta worked at Bethlehem Steel. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in January of 1951 and later died in October of that same year.
After her tragic death at the young age of thirty one, Henrietta Lacks continued to live on through her cells. Both Henrietta and her family were unaware of it at the time, but the doctors at John Hopkins had taken samples of her tumor for research purposes. Once these samples were given to Dr. George Otto Gey, a shocking discovery was made: Henrietta's cells were significantly more durable than the average cell. As a result, they could be replicated and utilized for various scientific reasons, such as creating the Polio vaccine.
While the story may seem as though it has a happy ending, the issue is much more complicated than one may think. Henrietta's family did not know that her cells were being used until they were contacted in 1973 by curious scientists who wanted to conduct tests on the family. This situation opens up an ethical debate in regards to cell ownership. Henrietta did not give permission for her cells to be used, but does she technically have legal rights to them? While the family is still struggling to gain control over the use of Henrietta's cells, the National Institutes of Health has granted the Lacks family acknowledgement in scientific papers- a small gesture considering the importance of the cells. In order to give Henrietta the respect and recognition she deserves, her story and contribution to modern medicine needs to be shared and appreciated.